In Stanley Kubrick's film version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, space fans everywhere were treated to the image of what they were all sure would one day come: non-astronauts flying aboard spacecraft as passengers, catered to by flight attendants and moving in and out of zero gravity as if it were an everyday occurrence. For the next three decades, everyone was certain it was only a matter of time before we had protected space stations in orbit, on the Moon, and possibly even on Mars where a nuclear family might walk hand-in-hand across an alien landscape while taking photographs for the folks back home.
Now that it is 2001, it turns out we only have one tourist visiting America's partially-owned International Space Station: Dennis Tito. Fortunately for him, he's a millionaire who's willing and able to fork over $20 million for the opportunity to visit outer space for a few days. Unfortunately for him, NASA was too caught up in their own self-image to take the money and train him, maintaining that their space program is for research and research only. It's still too high-tech and dangerous to let civilians go up there. Besides, he might break something.
So Tito did the practical thing: he went to Russia and offered to pay them a sizable fraction of their annual space budget for the chance to visit Mir. (Russia had actually sent two "tourists," a British journalist and a Japanese businessman, to Mir long before Tito, albeit not at their own expense.) They agreed, and naturally gave him eight months of cosmonaut training before his launch date. but since Mir was declared unfit for use and crashed into the ocean before he got a chance, they told him he could visit the ISS instead, which Russia also partially owned. Of course, NASA objected, and loudly. But in the end they agreed, mainly because the Russians had a legitimate case, but only after requiring him to sign a few volumes of paperwork agreeing not to touch anything important and leaving the space program not guilty should anything unexpected happen to him.
Now Tito is back safely on earth, describing his experience as "paradise" to any media reporter who'll listen. Neither he nor the ISS are any worse for the experience. NASA, however, is still refusing to consider his trip a success. They maintain that having a tourist up there would only get in the way of the research and assembly work underway, a potentially lethal distraction that could have waited until later. John Glenn, however, is on record saying that tourism undermines the entire purpose of the research station, and that it is by its very nature a Bad Thing. Which is too bad, because in case they hadn't been reading their own media coverage over the last several years, they need the money.
Space research is increasingly perceived these days as a waste of taxpayer's money. Our schools need improvement, people say, and our homeless are starving and our national debt is climbing, and you want to spend millions of dollars on a telescope just to see a supernova from closer up? Movies like Contact notwithstanding, nobody sees any practical benefit from continued space exploration. It becomes exponentially more difficult to send people into space the further they travel from Earth, and the odds of finding extraterrestrial intelligence anytime soon are remote at best. NASA becomes more hard-pressed to justify themselves to Congress with each passing year.
But Dennis Tito is far from the only millionaire willing to pay for an all-expenses-paid trip to the International Space Station. $20 million is a huge chunk of cash for the Russian space program, but it's not exactly chump change to NASA, either. NASA's logical arguments against Tito fall apart when you realize that (a) he was fully trained and physically fit before he went into orbit, and (b) NASA's selections of Sharon Christa McAuliffe and a septagenarian John Glenn were no more qualified to be astronauts than Tito was. Those two were chosen for purposes of public relations, not because they were the best people for the job. The only difference between them and Tito is that NASA spent money on them, rather than the reverse.
If NASA wants to continue to expand its efforts to explore space, without having to beg for handouts from the federal government on an ongoing basis, they need to be willing to get off their high horse and take it when it's given to them. They never said "no" to private companies when the first business-owned communications satellites were sent into orbit; those were about as far from being "research" as one can get.
Tito has proved that, given the right amount of training and discipline, there's no reason a civilian who wants to use NASA's space resources for his own recreation shouldn't be allowed to do so. On the contrary, there are plenty of reasons that NASA should allow, and even encourage, this sort of thing. Public image, for starters: Tito's elation at being in orbit for the first time in his life proves that outer space doesn't have to be all about danger and risk. Free money is another very good reason, of course. It's also a good strategic move to allow rich businessmen to enjoy themselves with your technology if there's any possibility they'll want to invest in your organization. If there are industrial and business reasons to continue to explore outer space, it's not NASA who'll find them first; it's the industries and businesses. If NASA can learn how to partner with them beyond simply sending their satellites into orbit every few months, who knows what could be achieved down the road.
There's no telling what can be accomplished in the years to come through continued exploration of the universe, but NASA isn't going to be able to make the trip without money. Most American taxpayers don't want to pay for it anymore. But if private investors and tourists do, then by all means, let them. NASA still has a government monopoly on the whole experience; they shouldn't let that make them into a bunch of elitists who are destined to carry the memory of Apollo 11 with them to their graves.